Feb 27, 2011

Saint Anselm on Anger (part 2)

Reprising the subject from last Sunday's post, Saint Anselm on Anger, I'm going to delve a bit deeper and in somewhat greater detail into what an Anselmian theory of anger would look like.  As I noted in that entry, Anselm does not discuss anger overmuch, nor does he provide any systematic treatment of it.  In general, he regards it as bad, but simply knowing that leaves many important questions unanswered.  What we have to do then is take his scattered references to anger and situate them within his more comprehensive and explicitly developed moral theory.

I introduced several important aspects of that moral theory, not least what we can call Anselm's moral anthropology -- his viewpoint bearing on the different parts or aspects of human being -- and discussed how anger fits partly under what Anselm (following St. Paul, and a host of Christian writers) calls the "carnal appetites," which arise in our bodies but then give rise to corresponding desires in the soul, within the ambit of the human will to be precise.  In this post, I'm going to set out some of Anselm's teachings about the complex faculty which the human will is, and set anger within them,

First, though, I want to pick up where I left off, mentioning several states of character, virtues, which bear upon anger, primarily in negative manners, i.e., by preventing anger entirely, or by lessening its intensity, its ease of provocation, its duration, even by keeping legitimate anger directed properly, preventing it from  spilling over to other people, bleeding into other matters or occasions.  Those are patience, meekness (mansuetudo, also translated as "mildness" or as "gentleness"), humility, and justice.  The last two exercise absolutely architectonic roles in Anselm's moral theory -- indeed all of the virtues are connected in fundamental ways with both of them -- but the first two more specifically bear on anger.  Now, we unfortunately don't possess all  that much of the great monastic teacher's thought on these.  We do know from Anselm's biographer, Eadmer, a monk of Canterbury, that he both taught and counseled on these subjects. He tells us that during the common meals, Anselm discussed these at length and in depth:
For if I were to describe him as he discoursed about humility, patience, gentleness . . . or about any of the innumerable and profound subjects on which we heard him talk almost every day, I should have to compose another work and put aside the one which I have undertaken.

Feb 24, 2011

Epictetus on Anger (part 1 of 2)

Returning to my series of earlier posts discussing various aspects of, and theories about, anger, today it is a Stoic philosopher I've selected to write about:  Epictetus -- who, if anyone had some good cause to feel anger in his lifetime, was certainly the guy.  A freed slave, lamed, most likely sometime during his servitude, who became a philosopher and taught in Rome until by edict that entire profession was banned from the Eternal City, he certainly had enough experiential material to reflect upon! He is credited for steering Stoic philosophy away from its sophisticated and voluminous theoretical literature and inquiries towards a seemingly exclusively practical focus.

There is much truth to this, to be sure -- strongly reinforced in the educated public's mind by the fact that typically in a college education, or in great books courses or discussions, one does not encounter and grapple with the whole of Epictetus' writings (or, more strictly speaking, those of his student and admirer, Arrian, to whom we have to thank for transmission and our possession of nearly any of Epictetus' words).  Instead, the typical work is the Enchiridion (i.e. "in-hand-book"), or as it is sometimes otherwise fancifully termed, the Golden Sayings of Epictetus -- a sort of "cliff's notes" or "best hits" of the much larger Discourses, we're often told.  This little condensation has proven as popular as it is portable, particularly among military people.  Frederick the Great carried it with him,  supposedly on his person.  Admiral Stockdale, who has written some interesting things (available here) about Stoicism, carried the Enchiridion with him into a Vietnamese prison camp in the only way possible -- in his memory -- and found its lessons quite valuable in that terrible environment.

Feb 22, 2011

This is What Democracy Looks Like?

In my home state of Wisconsin (where, unfortunately, I haven't lived for years), protests have been going on for some time now, long enough for a great deal of interesting and exasperating, sage and foolish, things to be said.  There's been enough time for dramas to play themselves out -- or at least their first acts -- time enough for loads of "new" information -- typically information nobody had paid attention to until it became polemical bargaining chips -- to come to light, for the "nation" to take notice and chime in  -- typically in very onesided, evidence-ignoring, partisan ways, even time enough for some protesters in Egypt to mistake what is going on in Madison for anything remotely resembling the revolution working itself out in the Muslim Mideast, and time enough for the protesters in America to seize on the comparison as one more rhetorical tool.

I didn't have a dog in this particular fight, not being a Wisconsin taxpayer, not having voted for or against the current democratically elected Wisconsin political regime, not having a child in Wisconsin schools -- and neither did the majority of my academic friends and colleagues who almost immediately upon hearing a few (far too few) points of the case, immediately sided with the teachers union and against the governor, willing to conflate all sorts of issues with each other, pass on misinformation mixed in with genuine information, take stands that quite understandably feel good but may not be all that well supported when one thinks matters through -- and call what is taking place "democracy".  But, now it has catapulted onto the national stage, impressed itself upon the national consciousness, provided to great a temptation for politician and pundit not to all to hastily weigh in with their opinions, their spin, their takes.  The Wisconsin issue has become a rallying point, and a precedent to imitate, for Left and Right.  So now it's everybody's issue, fair game, and I do feel not only permitted, but in some sense required to make a few points that in my view are being overlooked

Feb 20, 2011

Saint Anselm on Anger

As the case with so many other topics, Saint Anselm never provides anything remotely like a systematic discussion of anger, considered as a topic in its own right.  Instead, what he left us -- this great monastic Doctor, who wrote so eloquently and incisively, but typically only when some need of others or delight of his own compelled him -- are just fragmentary passages, like puzzle pieces which have to be assembled, or stones to be composed by attentive eyes and hands into a mosaic.

That Anselm the man, in face to face conversation, in sermons, in his classes and discussions, with people from all walks of life but especially with his beloved fellow monks, had much more to say on the topic than his bare writings communicate, is a certitude.  What we can correlate and extrapolate from what he did write, or what he said that others wrote down (for instance Eadmer, in his Life of St. Anselm, or Alexander in the Dicti Anselmi) is substantive and coherent, but does not exhaustively provide the fullness of thoughts about anger.  Still, an attentive scholar can draw broad enough outlines on the topic from his works, and that -- today and over the next several Sundays -- is what I intend to do.

There are a number of interconnected sub-issues concerning anger that can be unpacked and set out from an Anselmian perspective, including among them how anger affects the will and reason, the remedies for anger, divine anger's meaning, the connection between anger and other emotions, desires, virtues, and vices, anger's relationship with (right or wrong) punishment and the political or social roles and risks of anger in communities.

In this first blog entry, however, I'd like to focus just on one main, perhaps preliminary topic:  what anger is, basically, from an Anselmian perspective.  I'll close by mentioning what other states or comportments Anselm contrasts against anger.

We should also note right off that Anselm -- so far as I know -- never mentions anger as something positively good.  Usually, it is something bad, either in its very being, or in its cause, or its effects, or in the extent to which it is felt.  There are perhaps cases where it might be expediently useful for a person to feel anger, e.g. one who has to administer punishment, defend others who need it, maintain or reimpose (relatively more) right order -- I've written about such cases elsewhere -- but Anselm (as opposed to e.g. Aristotle or Saint Thomas --  even Augustine is some places) does not seem to ascribe any goodness to anger for this reason.  It is just not-bad.

Feb 19, 2011

Beyond 3,000: Thanks to Orexis Dianoētikē's Readers

Sometime last night, Orexis Dianoētikē's total number of total page views passed the 3,000 mark.  It might appear a rather arbitrary occasion for me to to stop and take note, celebrate, retrospect, reflect, and actually, in certain ways it is.  I started the blog in September, and by the end of October, it had 500 views. It passed 1,000 in December, then 2,000 in January.  At each of these small milestones, my partner, encouraging in so many needful ways, pointed out the growth in readership to me, and we chatted about prospects for new posts, interested readerships.  She reminded me that many blogs go on consistently for over a year before provoking a single comment, and  -- except for allowing vacation, visits with family, and a few other projects to distract me from blogging much in December --  I stuck with the writing, willing to see where it might go.

There's two main reasons why this round number takes on a different meaning to me.  One, which I'll write about momentarily, is that I feel as if Orexis Dianoētikē now has not only its space, not only a small but persistent readership, but also its groove, a clear direction, lines to follow out.  The other reason, much more of the moment, is that last night -- or so Bloggerstats tells me -- my blog attained an international readership of a different depth and diversity than ever before.  Here's a readership map of the last 24 hours:

For once, the USA was not the location of the majority of my readership.  27 readers hailed from the UK, 20 from Taiwan, 16 from Mexico, 11 from South Korea, 7 each from Australia and the USA.  Others read from Germany, Greece, India, and Kuwait.  Oddly, nobody from Russia yesterday -- I do seem to have some readership there, and even to have made it into a Russian search engine.

Feb 16, 2011

Right Racket After All, Says the Philosopher

Last week, I fortuitously came across another piece in which a reporter tells us how a social scientist has (re)discovered some truths long well-known and taught by philosophers and theologians.  Talk Deeply, Be Happy? discusses psychologist Matthias Mehl's findings which seem to show a correlation between reported levels of happiness and the proportion of "substantive" or "deep" conversations as opposed to "small talk" people routinely engage in with others.

This summary, by Tara Parker-Pope, is fairly careful not to draw conclusions ranging beyond the research -- a frequent problem, as I wrote last week, in some reporting on social scientific (re)discoveries of insights long commonplace in other literature, which miraculously multiply a small amount of  information, loaves and fishes-like, into baskets of grandiose speculations.  (Even after the feasting, though, crumbs enough remains for later, more sober, nourishment of the mind.)

Permitting Mehl to speak in his own words about the construction of his study, his assumptions, his inferences, Talk Deeply, Be Happy? opens intriguing questions, which can be and call to be pushed, explored, examined further -- precisely what I intend to do here.  To someone fortunate enough to be involved -- at least part of the time -- in sounding depths of philosophical (and, sometimes political, social, and theological) questions, texts, viewpoints, for a person experienced in  the joys and frustrations, the requirements and obstacles, the wax and wane of desire germane to such activity -- in short in the genuine intellectal life -- there are a number of long-discovered, systematically articulated and passed down, insights on these matters which it seems almost akin to robbery not to share.

Feb 13, 2011

Anselm's Similitude: The Monk as a Coin

One of my favorite similitudes of Saint Anselm, found in the De Similitudinibus/ De humanibus moribus, likens a monk to a coin (denarius).  It turns out not to be an entirely novel metaphor spun out of Anselm 's so fruitful imagination and capacities for developing apt analogies -- the twentieth chapter of John Cassian's First Conference with Abbot Moses (a text well known to monks like Anselm) records a structurally similar analogy to a coin.

In that text, however, it is "thoughts  which arise in our hearts" which are to be tested for their qualities, each examined for its "origin and cause and author."  We are to assay the metal, to discern whether it is genuine gold, or just a copper denarius covered over with gold.  We are also to determine whether it bears the image of the right king, rather than an usurper.  And, we are to test whether it carries the proper heft, or whether it is under weight.

Anselm transposes the metaphor metonymically from the thoughts of the person to the person him or herself, producing a somewhat new similitude.  The three qualities of purity, weight, and bearing the proper mark are incorporated, but take on new meanings, which Anselm explores as he works out the analogy.  One interesting difference is that in Cassian's trope, the pure coin is a gold one, not the copper denarius, while Anselm's pure coin is precisely that.  A later chapter takes up and further develops the coin likeness, and so I include its translation here as well.

De Similitudinibus, Chapter 90. A similitude between a monk and a denarius
Again, we should see from something similar, what should be in a perfect monk. There are three things in any good denarius, that should be in any good monk. For indeed a good denarius should be of pure copper, weigh the right amount, and be marked by a legitimate mint. But if one of these should be lacking, it would not be able to serve as money. For, in order for it to serve as money, it has to have these three things together.

Feb 12, 2011

John Cassian on Anger, Revisited

john cassian monk monastic anger desert institutes conferences god religion spirituality virtue vice
In a previous blog post, discussing the great monastic author John Cassian's very interesting views on anger (and by the way, recently saw an excellent piece on John Cassian and Church Tradition), I ended by setting out a paradox
If a person is entirely responsible for their own anger, if seeing things rightly and making progress depends on grasping this very truth that one cannot displace the blame for one's anger onto another, onto the towards whom one feels angry -- doesn't that go for me too?  Why isn't my neighbor also entirely responsible for his own anger?  Does not his or her responsibility absolve me then of mine?  Going further, if there is some responsibility still on my side, well then, what of God, if He made me angry -- or certainly made people angry with Him as recorded in Scripture?  Would not that line of reasoning make God also responsible?
As typically the case with  paradoxes, more resides beneath the surface than appears at first glance.  One can twist this plaint in two different directions: a horizontal one,  remaining on the same, human level; and, a vertical one, looking upwards, bringing God in for argument.  This latter, one should point out, can go two ways as well: one might point to Scripture's instances and examples of divine anger, and ask:  look, if it's all right for God to be angry -- and He's God after all -- why not me?  Alternately, one might also find fault with the way God has managed matters, the providential ordering by which He arranges the world, one so complex, flexible, and yet inescapable that even human free will is able to be incorporated within it.

Feb 8, 2011

Is Guilt Really Good?

Harvard Business Review ran a blog piece today, Defend Your Research: Guilt-Ridden People Make Great Leaders, an interview in the course of which Francis Flynn summarizes the conclusions of experiments involving the feeling of guilt. It turns out, not surprisingly, that guilt has many implications, and one might even say, functions in the workplace.  I say not surprisingly, because the research, its findings, and the media buzz about them fall into an often-recurring pattern:  (Social) scientist designs an experiment (or two, or three) which seems to bear on some interesting and long-discussed moral issue, distinction, or maxim, and arrives at startling, now "scientifically demonstrated" conclusions.  Several further features mark this whole process.

First, the reporters -- and quite often the researcher him or herself -- will extend the mantle of scientifically demonstrated or proven much further than good reflective scientific method would warrant, claiming much wider-ranging, universal claims can be inferred as conclusions from the study.  Now, they could be inferred.  Could -- yes, it might be as they interpret the experiments and the results -- but then again, one has to make all sorts of simplifying assumptions in order to bring that off.  The only problem with that is that reality -- and particularly when we are considering human beings -- is very complex, and simplifications tend towards oversimplification, and thus distortion of reality.  One can administer and compile data from all the Test of Self-Conscious Affect assessments one likes, given to carefully selected groups, and one will certainly learn some interesting things -- not directly about emotional life, and generalizable to people other than those belonging to those groups only with many caveats.

[As an aside, I must credit Flynn for resisting the interviewer's invitation to introduce untested assumptions about "Catholic guilt" as premises for speculation.
You and I both were raised Catholic. How are we not running major corporations with large philanthropic foundations by now?

We purposely stayed away from religion in this research. We don’t have any empirical evidence of a link between guilt and certain religious denominations.]

Feb 5, 2011

Anselm's Similitude Between the Heart and a Mill

Deciding to prolong the pattern of my posting from last week, in which I provided an English translation of a passage from the Dicta Anselmi, here is a short chapter from the De Similitudinibus/De Humanibus Moribus, one of St. Anselm's most popular works.  This is one of my long-favorite similitudes -- Anselm was well known for teaching all types of people by means of well-crafted metaphors -- and it compares the human heart to a mill, grinding various grains for our sustenance.  I particularly like the realization that our minds are constantly preoccupied with something.  Anselm was particularly happy when he was able to devote time to contemplating the divine mysteries -- in fact, his famous Proslogion argument (a portion of which gets termed the "ontological argument") emerged from many hours devoted to such activity.

The startling image I've added here, from The Lion and the Cardinal, depicts a scene reminiscent of Anselm's analogy:  the four Evangelists pouring scripture into a great mill, which provides sustenance for all, the four strips of verses being fused into one, that diatesseratic verse itself flowing into the hand of the Logos, the incarnate Word
Chapter 41.  A resemblance between the human heart and a grinding mill
Indeed, our heart is similar to an ever-grinding mill, which some lord gave to one of his servants so that he might guard it, prescribing for him that he should grind his provisions, namely grain or barley or even wild oats, in it, and live on what he has ground.  Truly, one who always plots against this mill behaves as an enemy to this servant.  When this enemy finds the mill to be empty, he either straightaway casts sand into it, which wears it away, or pitch, which gums it up, or something else which soils it, or fills it up with chaff.

So, if this servant guards his mill well, and grinds in it so much provisions as his lord gives him for sustenance, then clean flour of each kind of provision, ground up in the mill, will come out of that same mill.  And, precisely because he grinds, and serves his lord, he acquires for himself his means of life.  But, if he permits his enemy to mess up [violare] his mill, bad flour will come out of it, since the provisions he grinds are bad.  But, this flour greatly displeases that lord, and the servant does not gain his means of life, but rather instead hunger.

Now, this ever-grinding mill is the human heart, assiduously thinking about something.  And God apportions it to each of his human servants, commanding that they turn over and over such thoughts as he himself suggests to them.  And of these thoughts, some are like grain, others like barley, and others like wild oats.

Arab States, Revolution, and the Viability of Democracy

The protests against Mubarak's regime, at first pitting protesters against police, the army in the midst but on the side, then giving way to clashes between looters and citizens protecting museums, churches and mosques, followed by bloody confrontations between pro-Mubarak and anti-Mubarak crowds, then peaceful gatherings again. . .  and next week who knows what -- this is one of those situations where the West, composed of societies long governed by liberal-democratic (in the broad sense), largely secular, principally civilian regimes, becomes conflicted over who to support, what outcome they would like to see and to promote in Egypt -- and indeed in the broader revolution ongoing in the Arab world -- this round of a revolution whose rallying cry is Democracy, or at least democratic elections, starting in Tunisia, then taking roots in Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Algeria.

The protests call for and aim at change of regime, and the protesters have good cause.  One devil's bargains western governments entered into or inherited from previous administrations has been maintaining or at least turning a relatively blind eye to autocratic and repressive regimes throughout the Arab world.  Why?  A host of different reasons, trade-offs, decisions, precedents.  There's already enough bloggers weighing in daily about the many aspects of the unfolding Egyptian situation -- and its broader implications -- aspects including its backdated history, so I don't intend to delve into that in detail, except where that history impinges on a question I think many in the West would like to ask, but are afraid to vocalize, perhaps for fear of its implications, perhaps worried whether it might not sound racist:  Can Arab states realistically move towards functioning, sutainable democracies?

Feb 1, 2011

Desire, Doubt, and the Black Swan

I'm setting aside my previous plan for today -- to finally write a piece discussing the recent book Academically Adrift, the various intersecting controversies it has provoked (or better put exposed), and its use of the CLA as a measure for student learning.  Last night, at our little local downtown theatre, I watched the recent movie Black Swan, and I was so impressed, by the beauty of the production (within a production), resilient brittleness of the main character, the almost claustrophobic spatiality, the interplay play of doubt, desire, and discipline -- so taken, so provoked both affectively and intellectually, that I decided to hazard my very first piece on a film.  Not precisely a review, but not an article either, more reflections on the directions the action and the character takes, informed by thoughts of a few philosophers whose relevance and applicability suggest themselves to those who have long meditated on their works.  Less obvious, I'll grant, to those encountering them only in passing or secondhand, but perhaps this will become clearer though this short essay.  Those philosophical interlocutors I'm bringing in are two Frenchmen, Rene Descartes and Jacques Lacan.  To what I expect is the relief -- or perhaps the disappointment -- of my readers, I write with a style much more "cartesian" than "lacanian," preferring clarity to obliquity and erudition.

Black swan focuses on one central character, Nina (Natalie Portman), the only one to undergo anything which might be called development -- a strong claim which I think deserves a bit of explanation. What I mean is this:  the other characters are important, written and portrayed in their fullness, coming across as living, real human beings, not simply types or stand-ins.  I cannot fault the acting of any of the characters to whom Nina seems inextricably bound:  the neurosis and just-held-in-check intensity of her controlling mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), Thomas' (Vincent Leroy) intent focus on the demands of the craft, sliding along each downward lingering glance after an explanation, a command, into lechery.  The tragically disintegrating former star Beth (Winona Ryder), the straightforward pleasure-seeking  Lily (Mila Kunis) -- these are all believable, palpable even, but they all travel along the trajectories plotted out for them from the start, following their structured desires, making demands that flow and unfold from their characters.